Pamphlet 36: ‘Compassion – Papers from the Quaker Universalist Group Annual Conference 2016’, Frances Deegan, Michael Barnes and Qamar Bhatti-Khan, 2016

This pamphlet arose from our Quaker Universalist Conference in July 2016 which had the title Compassion: Why is it failing? Three of the talks at the conference have been written up and edited by the presenters to make up this publication.

The first, by Frances Deegan, has the title Is compassion failing or just ailing? Even though Frances lists many negative aspects of the world today, you will be heartened by her many examples of compassion: she clearly comes down on the ‘ailing’ side of the title. With respect to religion, it does have many failings, but it is a great force for good as well. Frances highlights one of the main reasons for a lack of compassion: dedication to one’s in-group and demonization of the out-group; or knowing that one is right and that everyone else is wrong. Here she is very much within the context of universalism, a theme taken up by our next speaker.

Michael Barnes sees compassion as a manner of relating to the world and to other people whereby we are drawn outside ourselves and learn how to relate to what is strictly unknown or ‘other’. Although this is an academic talk Michael is keen to emphasise that compassion is not primarily an intellectual pursuit. He takes us to the derivation of the word: compassion means ‘with passion’ and it implies suffering, pathos and patience. He uses the approach of Comparative Theology, not looking for simplistic similarities between religions, but exploring and learning from differences to seek out ‘the resonances and echoes between them’. Michael refers to three witnesses in his exploration: the Jewish thinker Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972); the early Christian philosopher and theologian St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430); and the 8th Century Indian Buddhist monk Śantideva. Michael ends his talk on a practical note, referencing the modern engaged Buddhist Joanna Macy and her group meditation practice: here one can explore that ‘deep web of relationship that underlies all experience’.

Our third speaker, Qamar Bhatti-Khan, touches briefly on the fact that he is a Sufi Muslim, but the talk is not a religious exposition: it is rather a plea for compassionate action. He uses his religion as a basis to work in community relations in the multi-ethnic city of Birmingham. He was inspired by the work of his father and mother; then his experience of riots in Handsworth in 1985 showed him the crucial need to work to bring the disparate groups of his city together. The second part of his talk is an analysis of the negative side of our corporate capitalist society. It is not enough just to write cheques to worthy causes when we see suffering on our TV sets. Qamar contends that our whole society needs to change so that there is a more compassionate approach to both our environment and each other in the boardrooms of our corporations.

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